UND FOOTBALL: Defense doesn't need defending
UND linebacker Brett Holinka remembers walking off the field at Civic Stadium in Bellingham, Wash., earlier this season after the Sioux gave up 42 points and 470 yards against Western Washington - a team that struggled in the North Central Confer...
UND linebacker Brett Holinka remembers walking off the field at Civic Stadium in Bellingham, Wash., earlier this season after the Sioux gave up 42 points and 470 yards against Western Washington - a team that struggled in the North Central Conference this season.
"Coming off of that game, we knew we had something to prove," Holinka said.
In years past, UND's defense had little to prove. It was one of the best in Division II football. The Sioux defense served as the foundation to UND's rise to national prominence in the early 1990s.
The Western Washington game served as a wake-up call for UND's defense.
The Sioux pitched a shutout the following week against Augustana before giving up 34 points to Minnesota State-Mankato.
Since then, however, UND's defense has turned in a number of solid performances as the Sioux head into Saturday's NCAA Division II first round playoff game against Winona State on a three-game winning streak.
"We lacked experience early in the year," Holinka said. "But every game, we've been getting better and better."
Despite the improvement, Sioux defensive players know their performances this season have received more criticism than usual from fans - especially those on Internet message boards.
However, a closer look at UND's defense reveals that it still is one of the best in the NCC.
UND leads the NCC in total defense, giving up 320.1 yards per game. The Sioux are second in scoring defense as they allow 19.7 points.
Those numbers are higher than those posted by previous Sioux defenses. But there is a reason for that.
"Times have changed," Holinka said. "It's a different day and age. Offenses used to run and run and run. Now, offenses are throwing and running. Quarterbacks can run and throw."
In its last four games, UND's defense has held its opponents under - or near - its season scoring average.
-- Against South Dakota last week, UND surrendered 27 points. The Coyotes, who have the country's leading rusher in Amos Allen, averaged 31.4 points.
-- Three weeks ago, UND held Minnesota-Duluth and its pass happy offense to 14 points. The Bulldogs averaged 22.5 points.
-- In mid-October, UND gave up 28 points against unbeaten Nebraska-Omaha. The Mavericks, the No. 1 team in the Northwest Region, average 37.5 points.
"Even in that Omaha game, we didn't play poorly," UND coach Dale Lennon said. "We just have to limit the big plays and make teams earn everything they get. But that's what we've talked about since we started coaching here."
Omaha's first touchdown came on a 79-yard touchdown run by Brian McNeill. If the Sioux had stopped that play, Omaha would have finished with 261 rushing yards - 40 yards under its season average.
The college game has changed in recent seasons. Offenses are more wide open. It's not strange to see a lot of teams lining up with five receivers.
"Coach (Chris) Mussman made the comment the other day that while we was at Mankato in 1993, they led the conference in total offense by averaging 360 yards per game," Lennon said. "The game has changed so much. Look at the conference leaders 10 years ago to what the numbers are now.
"If you look at the (defensive) numbers we put up, we're very competitive."
UND's offense leads the NCC this season. The Sioux average 518 yards - nearly 200 more yards than Minnesota State-Mankato's league-leading offense in 1993. Mankato's 1993 offense would rank seventh in the NCC this season.
Winona's offense puts up big numbers as well. The Warriors average 40.6 points and 482.3 yards.
Holinka said the key against Winona will be to limit the big plays.
"When we stop giving up the big plays, we'll be like the Sioux defenses of old," Holinka said.
Reach Nelson at 780-1268, (800) 477-6572 ext. 268 or firstname.lastname@example.org .